Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Must-Read Interview: Carolyn Smart with Alessandro Porco

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Must-Read Interview: Carolyn Smart with Alessandro Porco

AP:

Carolyn, your new book, Hooked, (Brick, 2009), is a collection of seven dramatic monologues by seven rather infamous women, including, for example, serial killer Myra Hindley, who participated in the “Moor Murders” of the early 1960s. Could you talk a little bit about the origins of this new work — how it was conceived? What was the research and writing process like for you?

CS:

I attended several readings in the area where I live, in the country north of Kingston, run by Jill Battson. Jill has a great history of organizing performance poets in various venues. The people I was seeing at these events, people like Sheri-d Wilson and Cat Kidd, inspired me to try something more performance oriented. I had also grown weary of my own story; confessional poetry had been my genre of choice for some years. Writing a full-length memoir seemed to get all that out in one fell swoop, and I had no interest in revisiting my own past. It was time to take on different stories, and I was pumped. I'm not normally a person who can write under pressure, but Jill asked me to read at the Little Red Schoolhouse Poetry Primer along with several marvelous performers, and I thought I'd need something pretty damn good to stand up on stage next to these powerful figures.

Around the same time, Myra Hindley died. She had been a dark presence in my childhood as my father had been fixated on her story and used to read the various news items from the London Times to us: Myra walking in Hyde Park with the prison warden, Myra and her complex relationship with Lord Longford, etc. I had always thought of her as a vicious, terrifying creature with immense powers of seduction. Accompanying her obituary in The Manchester Guardian there was a photograph of a dowdy tired woman who one could pass on the street without a second thought. I read in that obituary that her partner in crime had been the first man she'd ever met with clean hands. The obituary in the Globe and Mail, on the other hand, showed her as she was when arrested: platinum blonde and raccoon eyes. A face with no emotion. A woman who indeed could kill a child with her bare hands. I began to imagine who she was, what issues of class and gender had entered into play in her life. I wanted to get inside her head and feel around in there.

I proceeded to read whatever I could about her. The most interesting book covered the trial from a Cambridge-educated, female journalist's perspective, someone from the ruling class writing about someone from the working class. It really summed up so much and I just took off from there. It's not that I think Myra is innocent in any way, but I think there's more to the story than is usually told.

When I finished Myra, my appetite was peaked for more. Thinking of her as "the most despised woman in British history" led me to "the most hated woman in British history": Unity Mitford. I read all I could about her, and then started off into her head too. So it proceeded with all the others. They were women I wanted to understand. I considered several who didn't end up as poems because they felt like victims (I'm thinking here particularly of the first female dangerous offender in Canada, Marlene Moore) and I didn't want the book to be about victims, but about something very different, something more alive and vital.

I'd never done research for poems before, and enjoyed the process enormously. I read what the women themselves wrote, and what had been written about them. I spent a lot of time looking at photographs of all seven. There is so much to be gleaned from the bodies themselves, the way they hold themselves, the facial expressions, the eyes. When I finished some of the poems I grieved. Zelda Fitzgerald and Jane Bowles, specially, left me feeling wounded. Elizabeth Smart made me angry, not for what she did, but for what she didn't do, all she was incapable of for many complex reasons.

AP:

“The Luckiest Girl in the World” explores Unity Valkyrie Mitford’s relationship with Hitler, and it does so by oscillating in tone between something like a school-girl crush and, at times, pro-Nazi sentiment. Was there any fear, on your part, as you ventured to “voice,” quite literally, such a woman— that is, a fear of how such poems might be received? Having read the poems, I can say they don’t valorize or romanticize; did you consciously think about how to move away or around that problem when writing?

CS:

I was initially more concerned with Myra Hindley and the way she spoke and thought about anyone outside her own limited circle. Reading aloud from her voice is frightening because she is boiling over with hate. Unity Mitford, on the other hand, feels like two things for me at the same time: emotionally and intellectually warped, and at the same time, very much the product of her class and gender at that particular time in Britain. I grew up in the South of England in the 50s and early 60s and am forever grateful for my North American education thereafter which freed me in so many ways from the narrow life a girl like me— not interested in school— might have been yoked by.

To a great degree, I wasn't even thinking about how these voices would be received. To write with an audience in mind in that way is self-censoring, and that's something I consciously fight against in my own writing as well as in my teaching.

These aren't nice girls; I wasn't going to sugar coat them. Part of their fascination for me was the incredible depth of nastiness in some of them.

AP:

Earlier, you mentioned “issues of class and gender,” which certainly play roles in determining each woman’s mode of action, especially sexual action. And it is a repeated underlying theme throughout the book is that these women do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they are “hooked” (that is to say, destructively connected)— sometimes willfully, sometimes not— to the men in their lives. These women are always navigating an impossible passage between Scylla and Charybdis: between subject and object; between agency and a lack thereof; between what they want and what the men in their lives want. Could you speak to this theme. It seems to play out, especially, in your voicing of female writers/artists?

CS:

It's interesting to me that much of the early response to this book has been to the relationships between the women and their various men. For me, the hook referred to here is addiction. All of these women are addicted to something and in one or two cases it's love; more often it's alcohol or drugs or all three. The epigraph at the front of the book from Hume suggests that. Addiction is something that interests me and I wanted to explore it in these women, especially.

The one poem that feels most painful in regard to men is "Rickety Rackety", because Zelda Fitzgerald was, I believe, a brilliant woman in her own right who was never allowed to be so. Scott Fitzgerald and the psychiatrists who treated Zelda destroyed her creativity; they broke her will. I find it the saddest of all the poems in the collection.

AP:

I agree that addiction is a significant “hook” throughout. It’s what imbues the collection with a sense of fatalism and the macabre. Some of the poems end with a remembrance of the act of suicide, indicating that we are hearing the disembodied, uncanny voices speaking from the grave; or the poems end with the “institutionalized” interior voices of women having succumb, totally, to their addiction. In either case, what dominates is what you refer to as “a plain and simple language of despair” (“Skinless” 82). Reading the book, I wondered: Is there any hope or redemption, for you, for the poems, even in that omnipresent “despair”? (I think there is; I’m just wondering if you do, too).

CS:

Yes, there is no question that I maintain a strong sense of hope (as I think do many of these women, in different and somewhat bizarre ways) and I believe that redemption occurs in two forms, both indicated within the poems. Those redemptive powers are forefront: they are creativity, and love. I attempt to clarify those things in this book as never before. And to admit that really leads me to add that although I say this isn't a personal book— or at least not a confessional book— the poems here opened up more pockets of personal obsession and fascination than any of my previous collections.

AP:

To broaden the discussion, a little bit, moving outward from your earlier talk of how Zelda Fitzgerald’s creativity was “destroyed”: could you maybe speak a little bit to this very gendered problem you explore— that is, of how to deal with these women perceived to be “excessive” or “too much” or “beyond order.” Why is that pathologized as a threat, both in the poems themselves but even, possibly, in your own experiences in writing communities/institutions?

CS:

When I hear the phrase "too much" I often think of female friends I've had over the years who are in many ways larger than life: loud, emotional, wild, and bubbling with energy. I remember being in a women's washroom with one friend who was complaining very loudly and emphatically about the flat poetry reading we'd just witnessed (one of those 'poet voice' monotone events) and the women around us staring at her as if she were crazy or 'out of control'. Yes, these people are a threat to our sense of decorum somehow; they intrude on our personal space. I welcome that with open arms! The breaking down of our stiff cultural norms is a celebration.

One of the reasons that spoken word and performance poetry isn't viewed by the academy as equal to page poetry has to do with these very concerns. Performance poetry is often "over the top" by its very nature. That scares a lot of people and what frightens is often marginalized. I can imagine Jane Bowles or Zelda Fitzgerald ruling the spoken word scene, winning every slam.

AP:

Given your comments here, in this interview, it makes me think that down the line there might be some thinking about the potential theatrical “staging” of these monologues. Any thoughts about that (i.e. should we start fancifully imaging what actress will play what woman)? And, I guess, by extension, where do you see your poetry going forth now, given the “dramatic” turn in Hooked?

CS:

I have already been in discussion with Nicky Guadagni, an actress who is known for her character roles. She has a director interested in a stage adaptation. We'll see where we take it from here, but Nicky shared my vision of a one-woman stage production. I see it as a series of dramatic monologues.

Lisa Moore, the fabulous fiction writer, has also suggested that these individual poems could translate in an intriguing way to short stories. So I guess there's all kinds of potential for them.

In terms of my own future writing, it's always been a surprise to me. I never expected to stop writing poetry for 10 years while I wrote memoir and fiction, nor to be drawn back to poetry through narrative. I have no idea where I'm going next. Some people say I'm a project-oriented writer. I haven't as yet found my next project.

AP:

While I’ll end by urging readers to go and pick up your book right this minute, wherever it’s available, I’d also like to ask you what it is you are reading these days? What’s stirring your imagination — whether poetry, fiction, non-fiction?

CS:

I read very widely and at times obsessively. This summer and fall I read nothing but books about Stalin's Russia, mostly memoirs of survivors of the Gulag, as well as all of Solzhenitsyn's work, biographies of Stalin, non-fiction accounts of private life in Stalin's Russia.All of this culminated in my rereading of War and Peace, one of the great books of my life. Then I read Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives and 2666, both of which blew my mind in a way I had (falsely) expected On the Road to do. Incredibly exciting language and narrative form. I just finished a very moving and beautifully crafted collection of essays by Mike Barnes: The Lily Pond.

Right now I'm reading David Robinson's biography of Chaplin, as well as Donald Hall's memoir Unpacking the Boxes and Sina Queyras' Expressway. So make of all that what you will, Alex. It's a real potpourri.


Carolyn Smart's fifth collection of poems, Hooked: seven poems, has just been published by Brick Books. An excerpt from her memoir At the End of the Day (Penumbra Press) won first prize in the 1993 CBC Literary Contest. She is the founder of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging writers, and since 1989 she has taught Creative Writing at Queen's University.
Alessandro Porco is the author of Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (ECW, 2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (ECW, 2005). He is a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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